Today, Madison alder Barbara Harrington-McKinney came to the defense of her colleague – Gary Halverson who was, until late last week, a fellow Madison alder.
Halverson resigned his position late last week after citing harassment to his house and family in the wake of his name appearing on the membership rolls for The Oath Keepers, classified by the Southern Poverty Law center as an extremist group.
Alder Harrington-McKinney said in a statement today that the blowback to Halverson has been unfair and unjust, defending the former alder as having served his district and the city.
Halverson was one of six elected officials in Wisconsin to be named in a leak of the Oath Keeper membership rolls earlier this month.
Halverson has characterized his involvement as short-lived, and the result of being misled about the nature of the group. Halverson has written that he was led to believe that the group was for patriotic veterans and left the group once he learned of their far-right ties.
But some city leaders denounced Halverson after that leak. Council President Keith Furman and Council Vice President Jael Currie released a statement saying that the extremist views of the organization had been known for over a decade, and that mere seconds of googling the group would have shown their far-right ties.
Currently, if you search for the Oath Keepers on Google, the first result is from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which states that the group played a major role in the “Unite the Right” rally in Ferguson Missouri in 2014, which led to the death of one counter-protester. The group also played a key role in the January 6 Insurrection at the US Capital, and glorified Kyle Rittenhouse after he shot and killed two people in Kenosha during Black Lives Matter protests.
After having his home vandalized and saying that his family had received threats, Halverson resigned from the council last week.
Darla LeClair is the Vice President of the City Council of Two Rivers, and the only Wisconsin elected official named in the Oath Keepers leak who responded to WORT’s request for comment.
LeClair’s story is similar to Halverson’s, though she joined the group in around 2009 when there wasn’t much information available about the group.
“My understanding, and I think this is the way they sucked people in, was that this was sort of like a veteran’s organization. My thought was ‘okay, this will be a great way to meet other people who have been in the military, and probably some active duty (members). Also, and this might sound odd, but I was under the impression that it would teach you how to be more self-reliant, and to me that was ‘how do you filter pond water,’ you know if you’re in the middle of nowhere, what can you do to protect yourself,” LeClair says.
LeClair says she was a member of the group for just a few months.
“The thing is once I realized (who they were), and I totally get where (Halverson) is coming from because it takes a little while before you start to get, I think they were mailers, I don’t think I was getting emails from them, but it was something through the mail. I saw that and I went ‘NO,’ if this is their philosophy it is certainly not mine. I just set them aside, and didn’t even really think about them until now,” LeClair says.
LeClair says that the people of Two Rivers have been mostly supportive of her, giving her the benefit of the doubt.
Jon Lewis is a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. Lewis explains how the Oath Keepers go about recruiting new members.
“They’ve made efforts over the years to target and recruit veterans, members of law enforcement, first responders, effectively making the pitch that ‘we are an extension of the oath that you took when you joined military or law enforcement.’ They have really attempted to corner the market on individuals who view duty, honor, and patriotism as their core principles,” Lewis says.
As for Gary Halverson, the only evidence as to why he joined the group is his own word, and Alder Harrington-McKinney says she believes him. She says that Halverson never treated her unfairly, and that his voting record clearly and fairly represents who he is.
But Lewis says he isn’t so sure. While Darla LeClair joined before the group was well known, Halverson joined in June of 2020. The front page of the Oath Keepers website on June 4, 2020 shows quote “news” end quote articles peddling disinformation on COVID lockdowns and the effectiveness of Hydroxychloroquine, a horse deworming medication, in treating COVID.
Lewis says that, while it is possible that someone could join the group without knowing these philosophies, he says that it really stretches the bounds of what is possible.
“By the summer of 2020, obviously at the height of the COVID pandemic, in the midst of the racial justice protests after the murder of George Floyd, and when the Oath Keepers were already neck deep in promoting the idea that the election would be stolen, that the government would use COVID lockdowns as a way to attack everyday Americans, it does sort of defy belief that someone wouldn’t know who the Oath Keepers were by that point in time,” Lewis says.
But regardless of whether someone is a fully supporting Oath Keeper member, Lewis says that these sorts of anti-governmental ideologies are on the rise.
“The anti-government ideologies in the US have kind of metastasized so far beyond just the Oath Keepers, to the point where the ideology that they embody and the narratives that they latch on to are no longer niche, are no longer relegated to a conspiracy internet forum. It’s conspiracies that are being pushed forward by mainstream news outlets and members of Congress, who are very comfortable pushing these conspiracies that they know will lead people to radicalization, and in some cases lead people to violence,” Lewis says.
Meanwhile, that seat remains unfilled. The application deadline to fill the seat for the remainder of the term – to next spring – is October 3.
So far, at least one person has thrown their hat in the ring: Sabrina Madison, founder of the Progress Center for Black Women. She says she’s applying to fill the vacancy because …“I feel like I’ve been able to sort of curate conversations and relationships with people over the years where I’ve been able to make some movement toward the shared angle and create some shared progress so the outcome is not one-sided, but an outcome of some shared goal that meets most of our needs,”
The Madison council will appoint a new alder on October 25, to serve until April of next year.
Photo courtesy: Colin Lloyd / UNSPLASH